Ragged Claws: readers reveal what’s worth rereading
Without further ado, here are your entertaining and inspiring thoughts on rereading great books. When I pasted all the responses into one document, I had 10,000 words to play with. The space here is 1400 words, so please forgive me if my editing has removed the sentence you most adored. I want to mention a handful of books that came up several times. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, one I’ve refused to reread, has fared the worst, with several rereaders just not finding it funny. (There are exceptions, though, which I’ll come to.) The books people seem to love more with each reading are Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And the book that has jumped nearly to the front of my debut read list is one that has been on my shelves for decades: JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.
Let’s start with the last, as the same reader, David Spears, is also a Catch-22 hold-out. He says his father, Joe, who was a medical officer in World War II, read Catch-22 five or six times and “his enjoyment of the book very obviously grew”. “The gurgling and snorting would start earlier with each reading as he approached his favourite lines, culminating in hearty laughter and a resounding knee slap. ‘Which bit was that, Dad?’ we’d ask.” That’s lovely. David says he read The Ginger Man in the late 1960s and reread it 25 years later. He liked it a bit less the second time. Peter Ryan, however, puts The Ginger Man on the economical (for this editor) list of books he rereads. The others are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Gene Wolfe’s Peace. “I would argue,” he concludes, “that those universal truths we seek can be found in great writing.”
Nabokov takes us to a few readers, but first to Greg Carman, who is surprised I didn’t mention him (Vlad, not Greg) as a proponent of the view that “only rereading allowed true enjoyment of any novel”. Hey, I had only 700 words at my disposal back then! Greg makes me laugh sympathetically by noting he recently reorganised his books into must-read and should-read piles. “I discovered that my joke about having a stack of must-read books taller than I am was literally true!” With so many mustread books still unread, he says, “how can I justify spending precious reading time on rereading?” He harks back to his teenage years to remember a book he read four times. You guessed it: Catch-22. Greg says historical context is everything: he read Heller’s war satire when he was not far off his 18th birthday, at a time when young Australians were being conscripted for combat in Vietnam. “The genius of Joseph Heller was tailor-made for me.”
Michelle de Jong says that with “extreme difficulty” she has narrowed her reread recommendations to four works, each “written in exquisite and descriptive English and all dealing with the complexities of human behaviour”: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, all of W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories and the “William” books of Richmal Crompton. Then she emailed me a few days later to add a fifth: Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.
Ron Thomas tickles the funny bone with his parsing of rereading. “I never reread,” he declares. “It’s like losing your virginity: you can’t do it twice.” True enough … yet Ron goes on, “But I have one exception, Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier”. Well, there’s a book I’m going to woo! Ron continues: “It entrances me every time. It breaks my heart again and again. It is such a perfectly crafted little gem.” Ron is also one of a couple of readers who, noting my comments on rereading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, suggests its stablemate The Inheritors as a far superior book.
Gae Robinson says she looks forward to reading about everyone else’s rereading experiences, which is nice of her. She read Middlemarch in her 20s and immediately put it on her “best and dearest” bookshelf. She reread it 30 years later and … “Unbelievable! I’ve never read anything that observes human nature and relationships so keenly.” She reckons Eliot’s novel has “the finest example of understated humour in all of literature”: the passages where “Dorothea is touring the house that she will live in after her marriage to the dreadful Mr Casaubon”. Middlemarch is also singled out by Phil Haberland, who read it 35 years ago. He still remembers the “anally retentive Casaubon”. After reading about rereading here, Phil walked into a second-hand book store and found a “well-thumbed copy” for $1. “$1! For all the impending memories and imaginative excursions that I once knew. I can’t wait!” Hope you enjoy it, Phil. Malcolm Ross, too, includes Middlemarch on his list, along with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “My general rule,” he says, “is if a book seems less on rereading it never was ‘great’.” He puts Catch-22 in this lesser camp, as does Mark Demetrius, who at 16 found it brilliant and “stomach-clutchingly hilarious” but at 60 liked it less and thought the humour “tediously repetitive and circular”. Joyce’s Ulysses, though, “just got even better”. Mark asks a thought-provoking question about rereading: “Which are the more reliable barometers of quality? Is it the ones you make when you’re younger and more naive but (arguably) more intense and receptive to new ideas? Or are you a better reader when you’re old and jaded, but hopefully a bit more worldly, with sharper critical faculties?” Mark says he has a vested interest in voting B, and he’s not alone there. “Now that I’m in my 70s,” says Sandra Taylor, “I often reread books that I have enjoyed in the past. As experiences and contexts change over the decades so do our responses to books.” Sandra mentions a recent episode of ABC TV’s The Book Club on which American writer Vivian Gornick said she’d read DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers three times between the ages of 20 and 35, and each time she identified with a different character. The book, she said, changed her life. David Henderson, too, thinks he’s reached a point “where I may spend the rest of my life rereading”. His best example of “rereading a book and finding so much more than was evident in the first reading, 30 years ago” is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. He also praises Robert Bolano’s epic The Savage Detectives, Elias Canetti’s Auto-daFe, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo and the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. And Catch-22.
Carolyn Court has three books that “I reread ever now and then”: Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story (“When I first read it at school I found it impenetrable. Since then I have read it a few times and love the poetry, atmosphere and the crazy cactus garden.”); William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying; and, more recently, These Demented Lands by Scottish writer Alan Warner. Karen DeSouza also has a shortlist: “I am the proud owner of the complete works of Rumer Godden and I have read them all four times over so far.”
Well, no surprise here but I’m almost at 1400 words and I’ve yet to include everyone. I think the best solution is to conclude this column next week. There are lots more books to discuss, including Crime and Punishment and one of my favourites, an Australian war novel that we’ll keep under wraps till then. For now I’m going to finish with two rebels. Louise Johnson: “On rereading — I hate it. I only ever reread a book for purposes of school exams or university papers. Nothing beats the thrill of reading something previously unread. It far outweighs finding an odd small gem one may have missed on first read, if one rereads.” Maurice Wheland raises the stakes further: “There is risk in this debate that people feel duty-bound to read. And also a tendency towards self-congratulation among some of the well-read. Although stories differ, great books deal with timeless issues.” He says contemplation of such issues is most important, “not the amount of reading any person has done”. “Sometimes, too much reading is a bad thing.” Charmingly, he ends with a reading recommendation: William Hazlitt’s essay On Reading Old Books. Well, that’s a challenge we’ll continue next week.